In slow-motion, I peer over my left shoulder to see the enthusiastic local English teacher (LET) that I am scheduled to teach with during the 2012-2013 academic year. She clenches her fists shouting, “加油, 加油” (good luck). All the while, a cacophony thrums through the elementary school hallways as the entire school gathers in the courtyard for the school assembly. In a matter of seconds, time returns to its accelerated pace, as the principal of the school invites me to the stage. He is introducing me to the one-thousand plus students. I am overwhelmed by the energy onstage; he commands the audience. They respond appropriately, and in a humbling and warm Chinese introduction, he ushers me to the stage. That is when I—in my pristine Kenneth Cole dress shoes, suffocating khakis, and wrinkled polo from Old Navy—am likened to President Obama.
Being compared to a respected global leader is certainly a compliment; yet being consistently compared to NBA players, hip-hop artists and President Obama gives me reason to question: What narratives of certain groups of people in the United States are being exported to foreign countries? I share no similarities with President Obama aside from our skin color, just as I find that I rarely, if at all, resemble any NBA players or hip-hop artists.
During my time in Taiwan, I experienced how diversity in the United States is perceived by Taiwanese, especially in the schools. Although the topic of diversity can lead to uncomfortable conversations, sharing diversity in the classroom enriches students’ experiences by reflecting more accurately the true cornucopia of peoples, histories, traditions, religions, and foods in the United States. Additionally, discussing diversity emphasizes the Fulbight Taiwan mission: to cultivate mutual and shared understanding.
In my experience, Taiwanese students greatly enjoy learning about American culture. Yet often, their English textbooks do not have enough space to delve into detail about the variety of cultures in the United States. For instance, when the textbook discusses food, vocabulary is limited to hotdogs, hamburgers, French fries, milkshakes, and Coca-Cola. Not every American eats these foods. In fact, many Americans do not consider them as representative of American culture. In reality, many Americans enjoy pastas, quesadillas, gumbo, Pho, Kung Pao Chicken, and Chow Mein. Likewise, Taiwanese textbook discussions of American holidays are limited to only Christmas without mention of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or that many Americans do not celebrate any of these holidays. These text books present overly–simplified, Eurocentric misconceptions that are wrapped in stereotypical notions of what it means to be American. To further compound the hackneyed tendency, the textbook lessons are generally taught by Taiwanese, or white English Teaching Assistants (ETA) and white foreign teachers in cram school. Whether bound by curriculum restraints, time or unawareness, the fact remains that much is not done to mitigate such stereotypes that these textbooks present.
I believe Taiwanese students are capable of understanding cultural and historical diversity. Taiwanese culture is nuanced, and so is American culture. Students are eager to learn about these gradations, and talking about them is valuable to enrich student understanding of American culture. For instance, when teaching about Easter, I made a point of sharing not only the religious beliefs underpinning the holiday but also the non-religious ones as well. I made sure to include that many Americans do not celebrate Easter because not every American subscribes to Christianity. Unfortunately, as time in class is limited, my attempts to weave in more varied notions of American culture were not always warmly received by the LET. Therefore, I made a point to create a space outside of the classroom to augment student notions of American culture.
Every Thursday, a group of nineteen students (ranging from 4th–6th grade) joined my hip-hop class. I used dance as a means to engage students to a much larger discussion about American culture. My aim was to share alternative narratives to the ones propagated by textbooks ( i.e., that every American has “golden” hair and a swimming pool in their backyard). Along with getting the students to move their bodies and have fun through dance, I also spent the first ten minutes of each class talking about how hip-hop emerged, the culture from which it emerged, and why it was a seminal force in the black-American community.
It feels like yesterday that I passed out several sheets of paper to the nineteen students during the first day of the hip-hop class I created during my year as an ETA. I asked them to draw or write anything they might have heard, or seen about “hip-hop.” Most students could not recall any interaction with “hip-hop.” While some students wrote, “I don’t know” on their sheet of paper, one student drew a picture of a male wearing a side-ways hat, a chain, and jersey. Personally, I found this quite interesting. Why did this student associate a sideways hat and gold chain with hip-hop? Many Taiwanese faculty, staff, and students have limited exposure to cultural diversity in the US. As a result, their level of cultural competency is low. Such misconceptions of American culture are not ill-intentioned, but they are problematic. It is problematic that a student thinks that I play basketball because he/she saw a guy with black skin and a black-haired beard playing basketball—just as its problematic to assume every Taiwanese person is a Kung Fu master á la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In sum, lack of cultural competency between Taiwanese and Americans is an indication that there is room for coalition-building.
Conversations about diversity can be uncomfortable. However, such conversations can lead to a little more knowledge and shared understanding. At the outset of these classes, I was uncomfortable talking about poverty (insofar as one can to a ten year old), notwithstanding its influence on the development of hip-hop. When talking about the emergence of hip-hop, it is necessary to discuss the external forces which directly impacted the genre and culture. I was concerned that these topics could paint the United States in a very negative light. Over time however, the supervising LET informed me (at the end of the year) that this dance class was a unique opportunity to do three things: 1) enrich students’ learning experience; 2) reflect more accurately the vibrant diversity woven into the fabric of the United States; and 3) build a little more knowledge and shared understanding. I spent time in class showing videos of Cuban break-dancers and black pop and lockers, even historical artists which indirectly influenced hip-hop dance (e.g., James Brown). I showed the students images of notable hip-hop artists like Afrika Bambataa, Tupac, and the Notorious B.I.G. I explained how these artists interpreted hip-hop very differently due to the current issues facing the black community in their respective decades. Once, I asked the students to distinguish between Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. I wanted to see if the students simply thought the images all looked the same. However, I was pleasantly surprised when they guessed correctly. I asked, “how did you know?” They replied, “因為Tupac比B.I.G更帥” (Tupac is more handsome than B.I.G.).
It is my hope that when these nineteen students are approached by another black-American or engage in a conversation about diversity in the US, they will have a different perspective.
I hope they will be able to remember not the content of my lectures but the volume of our exchanges. In other words, while it would be terrific if the students could remember the “Four Pillars of Hip-hop and Kool Herc’s role in spurring the movement, I prefer to be more realistic: I hope that the consistent exposure to a black-American teacher encourages the students in the future to rethink what it really means to be American. The impact of the hip-hop class cannot yet be measured. Yet I am convinced that this class, and my work as an ETA has had some impact on my students. When I first started teaching and I walked down the hallways at my schools, the students screamed, ran away, or stood paralyzed as I casually passed them. Perhaps these reactions were caused by the utter shock of seeing a foreigner in the public education system, or the fear of English. Of course, students eventually overcame their fear of foreigners, and in my case, a black foreigner. It took patience, time and work to help prompt the students to cast off their preconceived notions about black Americans. I patiently explained over and over again, “Actually, I am not a basketball player. In fact, I do not care much for basketball.” Nine months later, students would often want to spend time chatting during recess. Yet this increase in cultural awareness took work, time and patience.
Fulbright Taiwan is limpid in its mission: to build coalitions conducive to cross–cultural understanding. The conversation of diversity is inextricably linked to the Fulbright mission. My experience has convinced me that there is space, perhaps a need, for dialogue about American diversity in Taiwanese classrooms. What a joy it would be to see Fulbright Taiwan ETAs more accurately reflecting the vibrant demographics of the US, to learn that future ETAs are integrating more nuanced perspectives into their English teaching or daily conversations, and to hear that LETs are willing and open to engaging in these conversations. Students have demonstrated to me a keen interest in learning about the whole fabric of American culture and an ability to understand it. These conversations can leave me feeling isolated and frustrated as innocent comments and questions can sometimes feel unseemly. Nevertheless, I believe that I am here to challenge expired paradigms. It has been a pleasure sharing my unique perspective with my Taiwanese students and counterparts, watching students, faculty and staff come to know me not as President Obama, Lil’ Wayne, or James Harden, but as Teacher Mycal.